The pro-Trump rioters brought handguns, pistols, assault rifles, and “a shit ton” of ammunition. One insurrectionist smuggled a handgun and an extra 12-round magazine onto the U.S. Capitol grounds. Another was arrested with a Smith & Wesson firearm in his pocket and had an assault rifle, a second handgun, ammunition and 11 Molotov cocktails in a truck he had parked around the corner.
At a hotel just blocks from the riot, a man parked a trailer carrying an assault rifle, a Glock and hundreds of armor-piercing rounds. Texting family, he fantasized about finding House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and “putting a bullet in her noggin on Live TV.”
Last week’s unprecedented riot at the U.S. Capitol ended with five dead, including a Capitol Police officer the rioters beat to death, and countless officers and journalists assaulted by the mob. The violence has shaken the country and ignited a new impeachment attempt against President Donald Trump for inciting the attack.
But the rioters came prepared to cause far greater carnage.
As the list of arrestees grows, so does the evidence of how much firepower the mob brought with it. Authorities had charged only about 50 of the hundreds who stormed the Capitol on Monday — but even that was enough to uncover incendiaries, half a dozen guns and the hoard of ammunition. Other smuggled knives, Tasers and brass knuckles, according to law enforcement, and countless rioters were photographed wielding clubs and batons.
“The bloodshed could have easily been worse,” said Josh Horwitz, a longtime gun control activist and the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
How many rioters were lethally armed may never be known, since law enforcement officers allowed dozens to leave the Capitol freely after they had stormed in. The most menacing are still at large; law enforcement is still seeking whoever placed apparent pipe bombs at the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee office buildings.
What’s clear is that the mob would have had the firepower — and, it seems, the willpower — to unleash greater violence if it had found the right targets.
As Jan. 6 approached, Trump’s supporters discussed the gear and weapons they were bringing on conservative social media sites like Parler. They were galvanized by Trump’s promise that the day would “be wild” and were ready to flout the District of Columbia’s strict gun control laws.
“Yes, it’s illegal, but this is war and we’re clearly in a post-legal phase of our society,” one person wrote, The Washington Post reported. On thedonald.win, one person exhorted that anyone going to Washington be “ARMED WITH RIFLE, HANDGUN, 2 KNIVES AND AS MUCH AMMO AS YOU CAN CARRY.”
After they broke into the halls of Congress, some rioters chanted “hang Mike Pence” — the vice president was presiding over a session of Congress that would affirm Joe Biden’s election victory — while someone erected a gallows outside.
Insurrection Goes Mainstream
To Horwitz, the firepower the rioters brought with them to what had started as a rally with the president is a fearsome reflection of just how mainstream the idea of armed government insurrection has become.
“Too many of our elected officials have exploited the idea of political violence for electoral gain,” Horwitz said. “Now you’re starting to see, when you construct everything you disagree with as tyranny and you say, ‘it’s time to act,’ people actually act.”
In the decades he has been a gun control advocate, Horwitz has watched the gun lobby and Republican politicians deliver the idea of armed insurrection from the fringes of the far right and the internet to the heart of conservative politics.
Slowly, they have recast the Second Amendment to mean citizens should be armed against their government, Horwitz said. Examples abound, like Newt Gingrich saying the Second Amendment is “not about hunting,” and Senate candidate Sharron Angle saying she hoped “Second Amendment remedies” wouldn’t be “the cure for the Harry Reid problems.” In 2012, she was Reid’s general election opponent.
At the same time, the National Rifle Association and the broader gun lobby moved away from representing hunting and sporting enthusiasts. It expanded its membership and political might by championing the idea that citizens should be allowed to own the same weaponry as the government. The list of weapons and tactical tools that authorities have confiscated from the U.S. Capitol rioters, he said, reads like a list of items you’d find at any weekend gun show in America.
“When you construct everything you disagree with as tyranny and you say, ‘it’s time to act,’ people actually act.””
The conviction that individuals have a right to violently resist the government simply if they don’t like its policies became turbocharged in reaction to the election of Barack Obama, the country’s first Black president. It was common at protests against his signature policy achievement, the Affordable Care Act, to see Gadsden flags — a reference to the violent consequences of government overreach — and the protests often featured an armed contingent.
“The insurrectionist idea is forever linked with racism,” Horwitz said. “It’s all about control and power. ‘Your health care law is tyranny because I don’t like who’s getting health care.’ ‘I don’t like who’s making the laws anymore, they don’t look like me, therefore I need a gun to fight tyranny.’”
All of this reached its apex with Trump. Starting with his days on the presidential campaign trail, where he suggested that saying if Hillary Clinton were elected president, “Second Amendment people” could do something about it, Trump has stoked the idea that political disagreements should be settled by whoever has the most guns.
Last January, Trump commended 15,000 heavily armed gun owners who descended on the Virginia State Capitol on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to protest potential gun control. At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump urged his Twitter followers to “LIBERATE” states that imposed strict lockdowns. It was a clear message for his followers to take up arms against the government, Horwitz said — which was exactly what happened in states like Michigan; in April, the state capitol was overrun by armed protesters.
“No one understood better how those forces could be used as a private army than Donald Trump,” Horwitz said. “He’s such a narcissist that we forget that he does have innate political abilities. He realized he could capture this group of people who could give him a lot of power.”
On Wednesday, Trump sicced a mostly white crowd of thousands of his supporters on the seat of U.S. government, telling them “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” They marched the two miles from the Ellipse directly to the U.S. Capitol.